Recently, my family and I had a unique opportunity: to view and venerate relics of St. Anthony. Yes, THE St. Anthony. The one who helps us all find everything from our lost keys to lost sanity to parking spaces at the mall. You know, Tony. It was thrilling and simultaneously oddly calming to be so close to a part of someone with whom I’ve felt so close for all of my life and yet who died 781 years ago.
We had heard it would be his tongue, but apparently that never leaves Padua, so we had to “settle” for a floating rib and a piece of skin from inside his cheek. The whole experience made me think perhaps a short post on relics would be in order on Truth & Charity this week. Here goes.
Relics are something with which most Catholics are familiar, but which many who do not share our faith find odd to say the least, and I’ve even heard them called “creepy” by more than one non-Catholic friend. What I find harder to understand is why more people don’t “get” it. The friar who accompanied the traveling shrine explained it in fairly simple and completely relatable terms. As Fr. Mario put it, we all have relics in our homes. We all have things that remind us of our loved ones who are no longer with us, such as wedding rings and teddy bears, a favorite tie, a blanket made by a grandmother. Many people even keep the ashes of their loved ones in their homes (an issue for an entirely different post, believe me). It’s no different with relics of the saints. Sure, the average family doesn’t keep Uncle Joe’s femur in a gold an glass display case on the mantle, but they do keep dad’s pipe on it’s stand above the fireplace.
Relics are “links of love. They are not magic.” — Fr. Mario
The things I’ve described in the immediately preceding paragraph are considered second class relics. That is, things that were owned or worn by the saint (Rosary beads, a habit, etc) or the instruments for torture of a martyr (you know, the arrows used to kill St. Sebastian and the like). I think what really trips people up are first class relics. First class relics are pieces of the actual saint or the instruments of Christ’s Passion (relics of the True Cross, the nails, etc). Usually, the larger ones are kept is ornate cases, called reliquaries, in churches. Smaller relics, however, abound, and can and should be found almost anywhere. I myself have a first class relic of one of my favorite saints, Elizabeth Ann Seton, in a small case, on a chain that can be worn around the neck. We keep it on display on our family altar (i. e. the shelf above the TV where we keep a collection of saint statues; classy I know). I find it to be a valuable teaching tool with my children especially. What little boy do you know who wouldn’t be at least intrigued by the idea of holding a piece of a dead man (or woman), however holy the person may be? Holding onto that relic helps me, and my family, feel close to a “family friend,” one of our patron saints. We may not have any personal effects of hers, but we certainly have a piece of her, something much more precious and personal.
There are third class relics as well, things touched to the second class relics, but as I doubt anyone would be weirded out by the idea of a holy card that touched the tomb of a famous saint, I won’t go into too much about them. Suffice it to say that anyone may make them for personal use (we have some that we collected while venerating Tony’s rib and inner cheek skin; again, the boys think they’re amazing). All classes of relics are wonderful reminders of the closeness we can and should have with the saints. They are, after all, members of our family, and should be treated as such. If we believe that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, then why not keep a few remembrances of those who have gone before us?
A few things you should know about relics. They are:
- Not magical
- Not creepy
- Not lucky charms (even ones of Irish saints)
- Not to be sold (only the cases holding them may be sold, and then, only for the cost of materials; any profit would be considered a form of simony)
- To be treated with love and care
- Reminders of our loved ones, the saints
- Unceasingly cool to seven year old boys (and girls)
- Categorized into three classes, with degrees of closeness to the saint separating them
Keep these things in mind next time a friend asks about all the “crazy” things we Catholics believe, because one can almost always rely on relics being brought up. Arm yourself with some good answers and you’ll never be left ending a conversation on relics with, “Because they’re not creepy!”